Small businesses should proceed with caution on ultrabooks

Are you sure you should commit to a still-emerging system design and form factor, or will a really thin and light notebook do?
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

Put aside, for a moment, all the sturm und drang being generated (and to be generated) this week and month about the Apple iPad 3, including plenty of digital inches here on the ZDNet commentary site. March will also be an important month for the emerging ultrabook category, with the release of the Dell XP 13 notebook, which the company calls its most mobile Ultrabook laptop yet.

I am still extremely skeptical about the state of the ultrabook category, mainly because right now it is very difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons about the various products being hawked under this name. Most consider the Apple MacBook Air to be the prototypical example of what the ultrabooks want to beat, but the notebook's pricetag and that Apple logo on the outside of its case have made it a tough sell among some small and midsize businesses.

The Dell XPS 13 notebook is a well-built introduction to the ultrabook category, although some reviews have criticized its battery life. The computer boasts a 13.3-inch screen, and it weighs 2.99 pounds. The computer is designed to be less than one-quarter-inch thick at its thinnest point, and the price for the system starts at $999 depending on the innards you decide to specify, according to the Dell product specifications and information.

Dell's entry into this category is by no means a surprise, since pretty much any vendor with a notebook or netbook offering has been falling all over itself to define its ultrabook offering.

Intel has staked a lot on the category, by creating what it believes to be guidelines around which the next generation of non-Apple ultrabooks should be based. But the problem with the category, for me, has been that there are many interpretations of what should be in a base package as well as many, many choices that aren't quite ultrabooks but might be a really good choice of light notebook. Don't get me wrong, innovation and variety are exactly what are needed in a nascent category like this one. But it means SMBs are pretty much on their own when it comes to figuring out whether or not ultrabooks are a worthwhile addition to their computer hardware mix.

Personally, I think that confusion should convince small businesses to proceed with caution when making an ultrabook investment, because the form factor is bound to change a great deal throughout the course of the next 12 months to 18 months.

Some recent data from a Zoomerang survey for Microsoft of 261 SMBs with less than 500 employees found that only 7 percent were using an ultrabook while 87 percent didn't know how to to define the category. So, you are in good company if you feel confused.

Still, some analysts are pretty optimistic about the ultrabook category. A report released in late January by Juniper Research suggests that shipments of ultrabook computers will grow at three times the rate of tablet computers between now and 2017. During that timeframe, approximately 178 million ultrabooks will be shipped, according to the Juniper Research projections.

If you are in the market for a new notebook this year and really can't afford to wait around for the ultrabook category to become better defined, then here are are 6 factors you should examine really closely to decide if you should opt for what is officially designated as an ultrabook or whether a really thin notebook would do for your business needs. Intel points to these systems as current examples of the category, if you want a starting point of systems to consider. But here is what you should think about long and hard.

Power efficiency: One big hallmarks of Intel's official ultrabook designation is the promise of "all day" battery life (about 10 hours). The reviews I've been reading about the Dell entry into the category peg its life at closer to five hours. The Lenovo IdeaPad U300s apparently gets about seven hours. I'd be thrilled with the latter, but the all day thing just isn't there yet. To be fair, Intel offers a pretty big range "officially" of between five and eight hours.

Performance: The specification for the ultrabook form factor is the Intel Core i5 or i7 processor line, which is the same architecture that the Apple MacBook Air uses. You should actually be pretty well served in this regard.

The thinness factor: According to Intel, ultrabooks should be no more than 0.8 inches thick, so get out your ruler or you'll just be buying a really thin and efficient notebook. Maybe this really doesn't matter.

Weight: Ultrabooks are supposed to come in at less than 3.1 pounds, partly because they do away with optical drives and use solid state drives for all data storage needs. This weight might mean you have to sacrifice screen size, though.

Price: The magic number for Intel's definition is $1,000, but the sort of high-end features you need for a small-business notebook computer won't necessarily be available in that price range. Be prepared to spend closer to $1,300 (which is about the price of an Apple MacBook Air, ironically).

Integrated broadband wireless: You know and I know that this is a big deal. Wi-Fi support is pretty much a given and the extent to which your next notebook is a good potential wireless broadband citizen -- with 3G or 4G capabilities -- could be the make-or-break thing in the small-business decision making process. That is especially true not just because many small businesses are distributed and on-the-go but because they might not always have the wherewithal to invest in wireless network infrastructure. Definitely study the wireless connectivity options for your next notebook carefully.

(Product image courtesy of Dell)

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